“I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Clear”: Gendered Pitfalls in Presentations–A Guest Post

The writer is a regular reader of TPII.

I’m a young, female, non-tenure-track faculty member and longtime reader of this blog. A few of its posts, specifically “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings,” “Stop Negotiating Like a Girl” and “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” have had a lasting effect on my perception of women’s behavior in academia. These posts have made me painfully aware of how female academics continue to reproduce gender norms in professional settings through words and gestures. I now can’t help but regularly catch myself and my fellow female colleagues of all ages “acting like girls.”

Recently I was at a conference where I actually became distracted by the gendered conduct of the participants. This was a topic-based conference attended by a select group scholars of different institutional ranks, from postdocs to endowed chairs. 90% of the attendees identified as women and feminists and used gender as a critical lens in their research. I knew a handful of them as charismatic teachers and strong mentors who boldly challenged my arguments, at times, dismantling them on the spot. However, during their presentations, almost all of the participants made the kinds of mistakes that Karen identifies in her blog posts:

  1. Beginning a talk by undervaluing their work or apologizing – “I’m sorry that I can’t do justice to this material,” “I hope to make just a tiny contribution to this complex topic,” “When I was first approached to speak about this topic, I didn’t want to do it,” or “I’m now embarrassed by how under-theorized my talk is”
  2. Using “um” and “uh” too much
  3. Rushing through the talk and not making eye contact
  4. Doing the verbal upswing and the head tilt, sometimes at the same time
  5. Smiling or laughing while discussing serious topics
  6. Beginning a response to a question by apologizing – “I’m sorry, I probably wasn’t clear enough” or “I’m so sorry, it looks like I completely misinterpreted your article in my talk.”

I share these observations not to shame my unnamed colleagues but to continue to address these problems of public speaking and assertiveness as they manifest among female and otherwise marginalized scholars.

I’m still striving to unlearn my particular tendencies to undermine my work through language and demeanor. When complimented on a good presentation, I’ll sometimes say “Oh you really thought so?” or much worse, “No, it wasn’t! You’re just saying that.” Beyond the conference setting, I’ll deny that I’m a good teacher or won’t take credit for my part in organizing an event by saying “No, colleague X did all the real work!” This struggle to “toot my own horn” and to present myself professionally has especially high stakes for me as someone who lacks job security. I depend on department chairs to advocate for me in renewing my position and to write strong recommendation letters that portray me as a colleague instead of a subordinate.

As difficult as it is to unlearn habits, I find that awareness and behavioral intervention go a long way. Just identifying my personal gendered tics helps me to minimize them. Conferences, invited talks and campus visits are performative affairs that require preparation. As a result, they give us opportunities to rewrite scripts. I used to prefer giving “off the cuff” talks but discovered that when the material was relatively fresh my speech became peppered with a lot of “uhs” and “ums.” These days, I write out my presentations, but as talks, not papers. This way, I know exactly how I’m going to open, specifically reminding myself not to begin with an apology, excuse or compliment for the preceding presenter, such “Wow, that was such a great talk! I don’t know how I can possibly follow that!” I make sure that I leave myself time to take pauses and make eye-contact with the audience. When practicing my talk at home (or in my hotel room), I make a conscious effort to lift my eyes from the paper. Though I lose out on some of the spontaneity of an “off the cuff” presentation, I make up for this by giving a confident talk that, with enough rehearsal, sounds natural and engaging. I also mentally prepare for the Q&A, reminding myself to answer directly and, again, avoid apologizing.

The worst is when scholars respond to a question with “I’m sorry, I haven’t thought of that” or “Yes, I still need to do research on that.” I often begin my responses by thanking the person who posed a particularly relevant or challenging question. I don’t thank every single questioner, but thanking the people who ask hard questions shows confidence, as Karen describes in her post How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career.  I can see way that it demonstrates that I am still in control, evaluating the quality of the questions before answering them.

In other words, I avoid some of the gendered pitfalls of communication by scripting my conference performances. By de-naturalizing women’s mistakes in an academic setting through observation and intervention, I manage to actually relax and have meaningful exchanges at academic conferences.

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“I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Clear”: Gendered Pitfalls in Presentations–A Guest Post — 20 Comments

  1. I’m currently an undergraduate student, but I’ve been able to do undergraduate research & present it at various conferences. I’ve never caught myself or other female presenters exhibit the behavior listed above.
    Do you think that being involved at a younger age helps prevent the development of such behavior? Or do you think that the gender bias in academia leads female professors/researchers/presenters to unconsciously pick up that behavior?

    • Gendered language is usually something hard to recognize at first, especially in yourself. For instance, when you wrote that “you were able to do research,” this could be an unconscious form of gendered language–rather than saying that you DID research, saying you were able to somewhat diminishes your involvement and your initiative, suggesting that you were given the opportunity, rather than taking the opportunity yourself.

    • This type of behavior is ingrained in women (at least in the US) from a very very young age. We are encouraged to be modest in speech, dress and behavior in the form of being taught what is “ladylike,” and even though people laugh at the norms of the past, they persist. We see our mothers say “I’m sorry” for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with culpability, but we do not see our fathers do it. In school, we learn that asking questions is a more effective way of interacting than making declarative statements. We are taught that when we are interrupted, we should stop talking and listen, but that we should also not interrupt others, meaning that men are the ones most likely to feel comfortable interrupting us. And we are taught that humility is a virtue.

      Thus, while to an extent early participation in research in a professional context can help in the sense that it takes a long time to unlearn these mostly unconscious behaviors, the inculcation itself occurs far earlier than undergrad

      • Saying sorry when it matters, not interrupting, interacting, listen, humility.. all that are virtue though, no matter it’s a man or a woman doing it. I don’t see why some people need to stop doing all those good things.

        • That’s not what this article is about. This article is about apologizing for speaking and undervaluing one’s contributions.

          No one (literally no one) on this comment thread is saying that everyone should brag about being able to tie their shoes and refuse to apologize after they’ve poured coffee in someone’s lap. I don’t see how anyone could read this article and think that.

          It is possible to over-value your work and be too assertive. It is also possible to under-value it and not be assertive enough. This article’s advice applies to people who are not assertive enough. Not the people who are assertive enough. Both types of people exist.

  2. I very much noticed this at a recent (non academic) conference. All the presenters struck me as being equally competent in the field- However, every single one of the women apologised for ‘being inexperienced’, ‘not really having [skill] at a high level’, and they were all sure that ‘the audience must know a lot more about [topic]’. (We did not.) None of the men did this- they just got up and presented and assumed that their expertise would be respected. I’d read some articles on this previously, and it is so very obvious when you’re looking for it.

  3. As a graduate student, I appreciate this post as a reminder to be attentive to the kinds of pitfalls the author discusses. At the same time, I also wonder if some of them are only “pitfalls” according to a gendered masculine norm that I’m hesitant to accept. For example, couldn’t it be considered gracious to compliment the preceding speaker, rather than, say, offer a dismissive, self-important critique of that person’s work that’s only barely disguised as a question?

  4. I have sat through lectures, conference presentations, and sermons too numerous to count, and I would never have guessed that anyone could possibly label the use of “um” and “uh” as gendered. Never. The worst culprit was a young male assistant professor from an Ivy League school. You will be happy to know that he has substantially improved his delivery. And since he’s conducting some very exciting research, his talks are now something to look forward to.

    And I have just returned from a conference and did not notice any of the female speakers indulging in these irritating mannerisms.

  5. Re: EP, I always try to compliment the preceding speaker (“Thank you for that illuminating talk!”) WITHOUT putting myself down (“I don’t know how I can possibly follow that!”).

  6. I see these behaviors in men too. Not just women. It’s called just bad presentation skills. Doesn’t have to do with genders at all!

  7. I have read this post, and the comments, and of course there are different perspectives. I come from a heavily gendered occupation (nursing) prior to my post-grad research, and I have to say that I see the overlap in the gendered aspects of speech mentioned here, although certainly personality confounds any absolute claim. I am glad to be reminded of tips to enhance my presentation skills as I fear I have made many of the mistakes above – especially when I was trying to be ‘polite’ to the expertise of others, including audience members.

  8. I think we should be cautious to not imply that women are worse academics because of things they do (thus they should improve!) but because of a patriarchal system that has taught and enforces these mannerisms. Good, solid advice – but should be contextualized.

  9. I gave a seminar talk a couple of days ago. As an early stage PhD student I did respond to some of the comments with “Yes, I plan to look into that/Yes, I’m going to research that” etc. simply because that’s the truth – I plan on doing those things. What else could I say?

    Yet, you list “Yes, I still need to do research on that” as gendered and to be avoided. What would you have said in such situation then?

    • Yes I also have similar thought regarding that. If I am a genius or person who can think fast (I am relatively slow-thinker – this is the truth), perhaps I can think that new thing arises in the question thus immediately say my thought on that. But usually I can’t; thus I proceed with “That’s a good idea to be incorporated into this research”, or if I already plan to do it but not yet doing it I’ll just say like Miri said, “I plan to do it” because that’s the truth. Similar question: What else should I say? Or is it different depending on your job – for graduate student it’s OK but academician not OK?

  10. Pingback: Thursday Link Encyclopedia: The Immaturity Collection | Clarissa's Blog

  11. I think this is helpful. Once I read this very funny but also serious article about how women have to talk in meetings if they don’t want to be taken as aggressive. Lots of apologising, lots of ‘but I’m not sure…what does the room feel?’ And like others have said, once you notice it you see it all over. PS I’m in South Africa.

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